It's a Sweet Trip

Happy Fourth of July Jimmy

by Sandy Arena on 07/04/14

I wonder what the fireworks in heaven are like. Diamonds in the sky, unimaginable colors to the human mind, explosions of freedom and joy never to wax or wane forevermore.

My brother Jimmy lives in heaven now. He died last year on Fourth of July. He was a former Marine - a man of duty, honor and patriotic passion. It was devastating and shocking that he died. But, if God called him home, Fourth of July was the best day ever for a man like him.

I live in Rochester, NY - many hours from my family. I don't see them very often, but Jimmy once drove all the way up here for an early show of The Life Ballet. He was radically prolife and devoted his time to speaking to youth about abstinence and life issues. He came to support us. That was in 2008.

"Sister. What would you like me to do?" he asked, during the hectic, preshow moments of our performance. We were standing at the sound booth and the performers, tech people, volunteers, prolife supporters and backstage people were scurrying about, getting ready for this unusual, "hard-topic" show. We were surrounded by organized chaos.

"Can you pray Jim?" I asked. "Like around this building? Alot? You know, like they do at Women of Faith. They pray around the building seven times before the event begins." 

His face lit up and his 6'5'' stature grew even taller, if that could be possible, as his shoulders straightened and his chin jutted out preparing for duty. At that moment, he became a proud soldier receiving a command from his captain, who in this situation, was me, his baby sister, 15 years younger than he. But it didn't matter to him. Good soldiers do as they are told, regardless of who is in command.  "I'm on it," he said, marching off with giant strides of purpose pulsating through his long and strong legs.

Now, here I was, 2013, at his funeral. I sat in the front row with "important" family members. I didn't feel as if I belonged there, nor did I want to be sitting there. I was in uncertain territory. I wanted to shrink inside myself and be unnoticed, blending into the background, the pain of his death and the memories of years of disappointments blanketing my heart and my soul. I wanted to be in the back of the room, standing in a dark, plain corner alongside with my husband and children, in a proven circle of love, protection and safety. I was a stranger here, a lone island of distant family, pretending to be a front row participant. But I sat, in the front, because they asked me to, and to honor my mom. 

Uncomfortable and jittery, I picked up the memorial program that had been on my funeral room chair, and fingered the crisp, white paper with neat, orderly headings and Times New Roman typed program notes. The final call of duty here on earth for Jim, sitting in my hand. I opened it and scanned the next lines of order: Prayer; How Great Thou Art; Eulogies.

My heart sank to the dark ocean of my soul that during those days often surfaced when with my family, a swirl of black confusion and coldness.  I saw my name there. I was scheduled to speak, to be part of the eulogies. No one had bothered to tell me. I frantically looked up and down the row of people sitting adjacent to me trying to find an answer to what must be a terrible mistake. The service had already started and there was no way for me to politely bow out. It was too late for that. How could I talk in public about him, when I hadn't spoken to him in two years at least and with my last email exchange with him extremely awkward and unkind? Upon scanning the row of people, I saw the others who would speak and the pieces of paper clutched tightly in their hands - paper of preparation that would guide their feet, hearts and mouths to the podium to pay my brother's final respects.  I had no such piece of paper.  My mind raced.

I just couldn't do it. Not there. Not then. Not in the midst of the storm. Not without my own guiding piece of paper. The pastor got to my name on the list and nodded me to come forward. In resignation, I shook my head "No." He raised a questioning eyebrow, as if "Are you sure?" I assured him I was sure. And, he moved on.

I am an artist. I process in words, pictures and song. I had failed at my chance for words, unprepared, insecure and filled with fear. At his burial, however, I was given a camera to take pictures and document my heart through my trusty window to life's experiences - my camera.  You can see some of the photos below. It was one gift I COULD give without notice.

We flew out of the burial when the service was over. I was choking, needing to exhale. On Jimmy's burial plot I saw my father's headstone and place of rest for the first time ever.  I frantically scanned the blur of faces, through my tear-stained eyes looking for my beloved circle of protection. I saw them, my pillars of strength, joy and protection.

"Take me home," I whispered. And they did. Sam tucked me tightly in the back seat of our mini-van, and I exhaled. And then finally, I cried.

I wrote a song for my brother on the day he died. You can hear it at this link. It is a patriotic march of duty.

Had I known I was to speak, these are the memories I would have shared.

1. My very first memory of my life was on an airplane crying. They were trying to buckle me into a seat and had put a pillow in front of my stomach so the belt would fit. I cried and my brother Jimmy - who was a teenager at the time - was sitting at the window. He picked me up and held me. I remember the plane taking off and he was consoling me by showing me train tracks on the ground below. I was told that I was one years old during this plane ride.

2. I remember when he left for the Marine Corps and I would write him letters, except I couldn't write. I would scribble my own version of cursive. He was always kind and gracious and would always write me back.

3. I remember when he graduated from the Marine Corp, and my entire family went to the graduation. Reminiscent of the pain that would follow years to come, I was not invited to his graduation. I remember feeling very sad and very left out. Little children have feelings too.

4. I remember when I was in middle school taking a train ride to Philadelphia with my cousin. We walked about 10 miles - or at least it felt like 10 miles - to find his antique shop on Pine Street. He was in there with his friends. He was very nice to us and gave us $20 to spend that day on our little adventure. He said "Go buy yourselves some pot or something." He was being funny in front of his friends. I thought he was hip and cool. We probably bought candy and earrings from Fashion Bug.

5. I remember when my parents got separated in 1982 and all hell broke lose in my family. Everyone was drinking and leaving their spouses and ending up in the hospital for one thing or another. I was in 10th grade and I was invited to the prom. I had no way to buy a dress that year. My brother noticed and he took me shopping to buy a dress. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever worn - pale blue, purple and pink chiffon layers. I had lost about 30 pounds that year from stress and from having my appendix removed, so I was frighteningly thin - 90 pounds. The dress hung on my sad, skeleton frame, but it didn't matter, I felt loved and beautiful by this gesture and that he noticed me.

5. That same year when the situation at home was so bad, my best friend Allison and I ran away together. In a parked car. Outside a friend's house. It was about zero degrees out. We were huddled in the car together, crying, two young teenage girls, wearing clogs, looking for a way out. Runaways with no where to go. Somehow Jimmy found us. He opened the car door and took our hands and escorted us back home. I don't remember him saying much. He knew the situation of that year. What could he say. It was 1982.

6. I had a fight with my boss at the pizza store where I worked. It was called Carmen's Pizza on Long Beach Island. It was the summer before my senior year in high school - 1983 - and I was a workhorse driven to buy a car so I wouldn't have to take the bus to school. I had gone to a bar with Carmen's wife the night before. It was fun and she was nice and didn't get out much. I think I had egged her on to go. Carmen was really mad in a hot, Italian sort of way. My brother went to the pizza place and smoothed things over for me and all was well. No more bars and no more hanging around and influencing his wife, after that.

7. My father chose not to go to my wedding. My brothers Jimmy and David escorted me down the aisle to Sam. That was the year 2000.

Those are just some of the memories. Rest in peace Jimmy.